Federal Court Funding

Overview

The federal judiciary requires sufficient funds to perform the core functions assigned to it by the Constitution and Congress. These include adjudicating all cases filed in federal courts; supervising defendants awaiting trial and criminals on post-conviction release; providing representation for indigent defendants; securing jurors for jury trials; and ensuring the safety of all those who work at or enter federal court facilities. These are vast responsibilities that generate a workload over which the judiciary has no control. In 2014, over 440,000 cases were filed in district courts and courts of appeals; over one million petitions were filed in bankruptcy courts; approximately 160,000 persons were placed under pre-trial or post-conviction supervision; and representation to indigent defendants was provided under the Criminal Justice Act in approximately 225,000 criminal cases.  

Deficit Reduction and the Courts

The Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, P.L. 112-25, provided a blueprint to reduce the federal deficit by over $2 trillion by the year 2021. Unpopular and politically contentious since its passage, the act resulted in across-the-board budget cuts in 2013, followed by reductions to the annual caps on discretionary spending (as well as automatic cuts to selected entitlement programs) in each year from 2014 through 2021. The law provides that failure to adhere to the budget caps in any designated year will trigger another across-the-board sequestration.

In FY 2013, sequestration reduced non-defense discretionary spending by five percent. The judiciary, like every other component of government, was subject to the mandatory sequestration, resulting in a $350 million funding cut, which constrained court operations nationwide. Throughout the year, budget negotiations continued to be contentious and resulted in a 16-day government shut-down.  

In December 2013, Congress finally resolved the budget battle temporarily by overriding the Budget Control Act and passing a two-year budget deal (P.L. 113-67) that significantly raised the discretionary spending caps for the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years. The judiciary benefitted both years. In FY 2014, Congress restored the judiciary’s discretionary funding to its pre-sequestration level of $6.516 billion, and in FY 2015, the judiciary received $6.7 billion in discretionary funding, a 2.8 percent increase over the prior year.

  • Additional information on deficit reduction and FY 2013, FY 2014, and FY 2015 funding for the judiciary is available here.

FY 2016 Request - $7.0 Billion in Discretionary Funding 

The White House, which released its budget on February 2, 2015, transmitted the judiciary’s FY 2016 budget request of $7.0 billion in discretionary appropriations without changes, as required by law. The judiciary is proposing a budget that is $264.5 million − or 3.9 percent − over its FY 2015 funding level. Seventy-nine percent of the requested increase is necessary for staff pay adjustments, inflation, and other adjustments to maintain current services. The other 21 percent ($56 million) will pay for program enhancements, including $26 million for a national information technology hosting initiative that will save money and improve security for the judiciary’s computer systems; $15 million to expand the use of best practices to reduce recidivism; $4.6 million to increase court security officers at courthouses; increasing the hourly rate for CJA panel attorneys by $6.00 to $134/ hour; and increasing the daily juror attendance rate by $10.00 to $50/day. According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO), the request will fully fund the judiciary’s defender services program, provides for a sufficient level of security at federal court facilities nationwide, and will ensure that funds are available for criminal and civil jury trials throughout the year.

  • A breakdown of the budget request by account line is available here.

Congressional Activity

The Senate and House Appropriation Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government held hearings on the judiciary’s FY 2016 budget request on March 24 and 25 respectively. The Honorable Julia Gibbons, chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on the Budget, and Jim Duff, Director of the AO, testified on behalf of the judiciary and expressed appreciation for the continued financial support the subcommittees have provided.

In response to a question about the likely effects of receiving flat funding in FY 2016, Judge Gibbons said that the judiciary would have to downsize staff by 260 FTEs, defer paying panel attorneys for one month, eliminate $6.3 million from IT-related court security enhancements, and cut funding for court security personnel and equipment by $22 million.

In addition to explaining the judiciary’s request for a 3.9 percent increase in discretionary funds, Jim Duff urged renewal of the 10 temporary judgeship requests, and both subcommittees appeared supportive of the action, absent action by the Judiciary Committee to make them permanent, which is unlikely.

The witnesses also mentioned that the FY 2016 budget request for the General Services Administration included $181.5 million for a new courthouse in Nashville and $20 million for renovating existing courthouses to address serious security concerns. They said that the Nashville courthouse project has been contemplated for 20 years and that some courthouses are in dire need of security enhancements. By way of explanation, the judiciary, like most entities within the government, rent their buildings from the General Services Administration and are dependent on the GSA’s approval of and funding for the construction for new buildings and capital building improvements.

During both hearings, the judiciary’s ongoing cost containment efforts were praised. In addition to explaining and expressing optimism over ongoing efforts to reduce the judiciary’s space footprint by three percent by the end of FY 2018, Judge Gibbons and Mr. Duff discussed efforts to expand the use of shared administrative services among the various courts and offices and said that some new cost-saving measures will require changes to existing law. Specifically, they asked Congress to amend 18 USC §3602 to allow the sharing of probation officers among federal judicial districts.

Prognosis

Unless Congress agrees on another alternative deficit reduction plan, the Budget Control Act of 2011 will continue to lower discretionary spending caps through 2021. In FY 2016, domestic discretionary spending will be capped at $493 billion – a $21.1 billion cut from the Congressional Budget Office’s projected FY 2015 domestic discretionary spending of $514.1 billion. (Defense discretionary spending will be capped at $523 billion.) Given the magnitude of the required cut in non-defense discretionary spending, the judiciary could face another year of flat funding or worse.

It is unlikely that there will be a genuine attempt this Congress to agree on an alternative deficit reduction plan. During March, discussions between the parties on how to replace the sequester took a backseat to Republican intraparty discussions on how to increase defense spending without violating the spending caps. They succeeded in finding a strategy that majorities in both chambers could live with.

The House’s budget proposal (H. Con. Res. 27), adopted March 26 by a vote of 228-199, adheres to the budget caps but increases defense spending by $38 billion without offsetting the amount by  increasing the limit on uncapped spending for war and related activities in the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account to $96 billion. The Senate used to same strategy to increase defense spending and adopted its own budget blueprint (S. Con. Res. 11) on a party-line vote the next day.

The next step will be for the chambers to reconcile their differences and adopt a final budget to guide the FY 2016 appropriations process. The final budget will establish the spending totals for each budget function, which will then be used to determine the “302(b)” funding allocations for each appropriations subcommittee. This is a critical step in the process because the size of the 302(b) allocation for the Financial Services Subcommittees will affect the size of the judiciary’s FY 2016 appropriation. 

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  • Congressional Materials

  • Reports

Contact

Denise A. Cardman, Deputy Director

Governmental Affairs Office

American Bar Association

Suite 400

1050 Connecticut Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20036

(202) 662-1761

denise.cardman@americanbar.org


Updated:

March 30, 2015